Crestone Peak to Needle Traverse

Crestone Peak to Needle Traverse

Page Type: Trip Report
Lat/Lon: 37.96470°N / 105.5761°W
Date Climbed/Hiked: Sep 17, 2005
Broken Hand Peak- (13573')-CO Rank 209
"Crestolita"- (13270')-CO Rank 423
Crestone Peak- (14294')-CO Rank 7
Crestone Needle- (14197')-CO Rank 19
~8 miles RT, 5700' gain
via South Colony Lakes 4WD trailhead
Participants: Layne Bracy, James Just, Karen Tiffany, Jim Ohl, and Kevin Baker


A couple months ago I ran across James Just on the Manitou Incline. We discussed our hiking plans for the summer and decided to hook up sometime in Sept for Crestone Needle. James was interested in doing the Peak to Needle traverse, one of the 4 great 14er traverses in CO. I was a little tentative committing to such a challenging route with my lack of climbing skills, but I kept an open mind on the prospect. As the date approached, my friend Layne Bracy expressed interest in the traverse as well. Layne had already climbed both peaks twice and wanted a different perspective of these impressive peaks. Finally, I invited my friends Jim Ohl and Karen Tiffany, who were the sane ones in the bunch as they were interested in the standard Red Couloir route on Crestone Peak. A couple days before the climb, Layne asked for volunteers to join him on Broken Hand Peak and "Crestolita", a couple of ranked 13ers very close to Broken Hand Pass, so James and I were fools and signed up for the punishment. It seems like most of the hikes I do with Layne turn into an epic jaunt, and this day would be no different.

On Friday evening, I rode down to the 2WD trailhead with Jim and Karen as James kindly volunteered to wait for us so we didn't have to hike the brutal 5 mile road in the dark to the 11060' 4WD trailhead. Layne rode with a friend of James who was intending on climbing the Needle solo. We did not arrive until 8pm from C. Springs, but James was a pro flying up the road in a personal record of 1 hr 30 min. Yes, the road is that bad. This was the third time up the road for me, and it seems to be worse every time. Layne staked out a nice campsite for us just beyond the trailhead, and we were in bed by 10:30 or so. I didn't sleep well as the wind could be heard ripping across the high ridges all night. Other than the wind though, the forecast looked great for Sat.

We awoke at 3:30am to accomadate the 2 13ers now on the agenda and set off at 4:03. We made good time in the dark to the lakes, then began the steep climb to 12900' Broken Hand Pass. This climb was actually easier going up even in the dark as the CFI has made some improvements since my visit last year. We lost the trail a couple times near the top, then were greeted by a stiff, chilly wind blasting us as it funnelled across the pass. The wind made us doubt our lofty goals for the day, but we hoped that conditions would improve when we dropped off the pass. Jim and Karen wisely decided to wait for us at the base of the Red Couloir to Crestone Peak at Cottonwood Lake.

The wind relented and we had an enjoyable climb to Broken Hand Peak, a rarely visited ranked 13er. We arrived at 6:27 in time to enjoy the sunrise and alpenglow on the Crestones. The descent to the Broken Hand-Crestolita saddle was quick, where we took a quick snack break to prepare for the day ahead. I did not find much info on rarely visited Crestolita, but an informative trip report by Ryan Schilling revealed that it was well guarded by cliffs with only one viable climbing option, the North Couloir. After some ledge traversing, we found the couloir which turned out to be a bowling alley of loose rock. We fanned out to avoid the shooting gallery, with Layne leading the way to the summit. I arrived at 7:50 with rewarding views of the Crestones, a unique vantage point indeed. We spend only a few minutes there and made the tedious descent down the couloir. The loose rock began to take its toll on me, as my pace began to slow early in the day.

As expected, Jim and Karen had already headed up Crestone Peak as the wind was still blowing pretty hard in the basin as well. The route up the Red Couloir of Crestone is a fun class 3 climb on solid rock, but it seemed to take longer than it did last year as I was already gassed. Layne climbed on with his seemingly endless energy, while James and I plodded up 2000' to the notch. From here, it was a familiar traverse across broad ledges to the spectacular summit of Crestone, which probably still ranks as my favorite 14er. James and I arrived at 10:27 as Jim, Karen, and Layne were waiting for us. This small summit only has room for a few climbers, so we didn't hang around too long to enjoy it as the day was still young. Jim and Karen headed over to tag the spectacular sub-summit E. Crestone which is also the Custer county highpoint! They wisely were not interested in the traverse and headed back down.

James, Layne, and I headed down the Red Couloir and found the start of the traverse at an elevation of around 13800'. James and Layne did a stellar job of keeping us on the correct route for most of the traverse, while I was pretty much along for the ride. The traverse generally stays 2-300' below the jagged ridge crest on the west side and looks very formidable from a distance. The peak and needle are seperated by a straight line distance of about 1/2 mile, but the terrain is a convoluted mess to navigate. James expressed some concern about continuing as he was tiring as I was also, but we just took a slow, deliberate approach to conserve our strength and minimize routefinding errors. The first half of the traverse was not bad at all and the exposure was minimal as the ledge systems were broad. The Needle pops into view and it appears like there are few options to the summit without the aid of a rope, but as is usually the case, things look worse from afar!

After a couple hours of traversing, the route finding became more difficult and the climbing began. We could now see the three gendarmes (towers) on the ridge above us that would serve as our guides to the top. The problem was that our views were often limited to what we could see above us, so we looked for cairns and stayed out of trouble. We dropped down to a minimum elevation of 13600' and followed a trail that continued to go down. This seemed to be some sort of escape route as we knew we should not descend too far below the ridge. We soon found a cairn and continued on. The task at hand was now a series of small couloir climbs and traversing across solid ledges that were not as narrow as I had feared. At one point, James was pulling some low class 5 moves that he was not comfortable with, so we knew there had to be a better way. James and I waited for Layne to scope out what was around a corner, and he found easier terrain! James carefully downclimbed the brief class 5 pitch, and we made our way around the corner to easier climbing. After a couple more gully climbs, we topped out on the ridge and considered our future. The final 100 ft climb to the summit loomed, and it looked intimidating!

We all took a 5 minute break to hydrate and James asked me when I wanted to go, so I said I would go last. This would give me a chance to study the best way to climb it! The exposure at this point was very intimidating for me, as the n.e. face of the needle was to our left with over 1500' of air to solid ground. This was a challenge for my limited climbing skills, but I felt the solid knobby conglomerate rock would not disappoint. James went first and blasted up the crux with no problem. Layne followed and I noticed that they both stayed to the left near the ridge. The holds looked to be better, but the exposure was considerable. I slowly climbed it, testing each handhold. I focused on looking up instead of down and was relieved to see the rappel slings near the top! At 2:32pm, we topped out on Crestone Needle. What a thrill to complete one of Colorado's 4 great 14er traverses, but we all agreed we will never do it again!

We took an extended break as the wind was still ripping pretty hard. We were not looking forward to the steep downclimb of the standard route. We left the spectacular Needle at 3:07. Layne had been up the couloirs twice, so we did not have any routefinding problems. There was quite a bit of all fours downclimbing in the couloirs along with some face in stuff. The wind was now blowing up the gullies and blasting us in the face. Numerous times it knocked me down. This mountain would not relent! We finally made it to Broken Hand Pass and began the long descent to the lakes. By this time I lost all means of coordination, so there were plenty of awkward sliding going on. At around 5:30, we finally made it back to camp. We were physically and mentally wasted after the long day. What an incredible climb it was!


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